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Revelling in genius

36 Arguments for the Existence of God : A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein

When I was about 12 years old I read a book by Chaim Potok called The Chosen. It featured two main characters, one a genius hasidic boy and the other a bright non-orthodox and modernised Jewish boy. It was the first real glimpse into another culture I had ever had. Not only was it fascinating, it was thoroughly absorbing. Central to this for me was the celebration of the intellect through a series of amazing tests of memory and reasoning that occurred between the hasidic boy and his father. I felt a longing for these exciting rituals of the mind. The more restrictive and closed aspects of the sect didn’t really feature in my wonder. I just wanted that level of educational attention. Reading Rebecca Goldstein’s book, The 36 Arguments for the existence of God: A Work of Fiction transported me back to that time and sense of wonder.

36 Arguments
36 Arguments

The main characters in this novel are all on the spectrum between the brilliant and successful to off the chart geniuses. Goldstein gets us a special seat at the table of the exceptional, where we listen in on conversations of mathematics, poetry, philosophy and psychology. Each of the characters are beautifully realised and throughly articulate representatives of themselves, by which I mean that at any given time the actions and words unmistakably belong to that specific individual and no other.This is no mean feat for a novelist and something only the best writers seem capable of doing convincingly. It’s also important to Goldstein’s overall attempt to explore complex philosophical themes through her characters. Having a coherent idea of who each person is and what they represent in a situation enables us to explore the human implications or the points of views raised with a high degree of clarity.

The central character is Cass Seltzer, the successful author of the atheist work, The Varieties of Religious Illusion and Professor of the Psychology of Religion at Frankfurter University. Seltzer’s book has been wildly successful and cast him into a spotlight which he’s not quite comfortable with. He’s a slightly shy man, a little uncomfortable in the spotlight, in a boyish sort of way. This, combined with his deep appreciation of the religious experience, has landed him the mantle of ‘an atheist with soul’, the modern day William James.

We meet several of Cass’s girlfriends over the course of his adult life, each of them is brilliant in such a way as to fully eclipse anything that Cass himself may achieve (at least in his own mind). There’s the passionate and brilliant poet Pascale, the vivacious anthropologist Roz and the absurdly intelligent ‘goddess of game theory’ Lucinda Mandelbaum. In each of these relationships Cass seems to be caught in an irresistible orbit around the genius of his current partner, where his own sense of self becomes defined by his inability to truly engage with their brilliance. And although the pull Cass feels with these women is intense and all consuming, enabling all manner of glorious self-deceptions, once ended, he recovers in a way that seems to surprise even him.

In a recent review I read of Goldstein’s book, the reviewer, philosopher Julian Baggini, felt that although beautifully realised he didn’t find that he cared very much about the characters. This did strike me as odd because I found that I did care about them, so it got me thinking about why he may have responded so differently. I suspect it is because the characters all fully capable and immersed in their respective communities, so we know that they are going to be ok, almost no matter what befalls them. So the dramas they are a part of, to some extent, leave them much as they were before they began. However I find I still care because although they survive their breakups and opportunities lost we se that they handle these significant life problems with consistency and honesty. They remain true to their worldview even on a personal level.

Each of Goldstein’s characters are first and foremost wedded to their ambitions and intellectual pursuits, the partnerships they form whilst they undertake their work therefore become intense shorthand bursts of what may be best described as ‘varieties of love illusion.’ This draws together the themes of the work of Cass and Goldstein herself by describing the common denominators of psychological experiences found in religions, ambitions and relationships. For me, this almost analytical approach to constructing the relationships on the page results in wonderful moments of honest self appraisal as well as the warm enveloping states of fantasy attained when in head-over-heels  love:

His adoration of the afflicted darling of his life, his own tormented wife, sank so deeply into his being that he felt it must be transforming him on the cellular level … although he had fallen in love with Pascale because of her words, it was only now, in her writhing wordlessness, that he knew how entwined their two souls were. They inhabited this silence with an intimacy so complete it all but matched a person’s own intimacy with himself.” p29

Goldstein uses these relationships as the geography of the great intellectual and social transitions of the 20th century. The relationship between the empirical sciences and the humanities, between data filled gaze of science at the world and the feelings of the numinous.

The old-time intellectuals, who were mostly scientifically illiterate, not knowing their asses from their amygdalas, have been rendered worse than dead; they’ve been rendered irrelevant by the scientists and techno-innovators, who are the only ones now offering ideas with the power and sweep to change the culture at large.” p13

Through Cass Selzter and his relationships with his friends, family and lovers, Goldstein brings to life a fully secular non-supernatural spiritual response to life and shows how little the notion of a God brings to any of the powerful experiences of transcendence. And also how we’re all participants in our own self scripted existence, even as we pass in and out of orbit with one another.

Listen to Warren Bonett speak with the fabulous Kylie Sturgess on the TokenSkeptic podcast review this book and others.

Listen to Rebecca Goldstein herself talk about this book for The Science Network or for Google on Youtube.

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